Adapted from an August Dharma Talk
We may all feel as though we have been taxed beyond our ability to cope. The Covid 19 pandemic, economic crisis, racial inequality, those who are supposed to protect society have been seen in video taking the lives of those who are most vulnerable, an election that is further dividing neighbor against neighbor, sister against brother, friend against friend. These are all part of what we been living through the last several months. And it is going to be a while till we proceed to the next chapter. As Buddhists we are guided by The Eightfold Noble Truths. Now is the time to be most mindful of our own speech and our actions, the third and fourth of the Noble Truths.
Right Speech and Right Actions are often stated as cautionary precepts. For Right Speech, not to lie, slander and use harsh speech. For Right Actions, not killing, stealing, misuse of sex. There are also positive ways of framing these foundational teachings. Right speech includes, speaking truthfully, with words which promote friendship and harmony between people, speech should always be soft, gentle and affectionate. Right Actions would be any action motivated by kindness, generosity, patience, and the desire to help others.
It is very difficult for us to keep our peace, holding, our tongues, when others, including, especially the president and other the leaders use language and actions to intentionally divide and malign others for their own personal gain. There is nothing new about this, it is as ancient as the Mahabharata, Torah, the Christian Bible and Quran. What is important is how we respond to it.
I wish I could say that we must follow the Dhammapada’s injunction that informs us that anger begets anger, only love can overcome anger. Anger is a natural reaction to anger, sorry to say we are wired that way. It requires great compassion and wisdom to transform our anger reaction to love. The practice is worthy, though the result may fall short. Transforming the anger we hear to constructive action is a good midpoint that may be doable. It may be short of love, but it is better than reiterating the anger we hear.
We have an example of how we might do that in real life. The recently deceased John Lewis used the phrase ‘good trouble’. In June 2018 He wrote in a tweet “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
We must find a way to use Right Speech and Right Action in such a way that it is used for good trouble, necessary trouble. These are not antithetical ideas. A general principle to follow when adhering to the Eightfold Noble path is: are you harming someone or helping someone, are you enabling or are you hindering, and is your act selfless?
Another quote from John Lewis came from the impeachment hearings of Donald Trump in 2019 in which he said “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
I was thinking about my full-time activity against the war in Vietnam five decades ago. How active I was. Virtually every day I was involved in a protest, demonstration, meeting with the police about the next march, writing something for the newspaper or to my Congressperson, creating and directing a remedial summer program in the inner city for youngsters as a way to generate love rather than anger . . . every day . . . every day.
Now so many decades later I clearly do not have the energy and stamina to pursue my principles in the same way I chose to so many years ago. To be on the right side of history. But, I ask myself if all those activities so many years ago were training for what is before us right now? If I cannot be on the streets as consistently, with as much vigor, what can I do that is smarter and more effective?
Each of us have that challenge. We must embrace Right Speech and Right Action. We do this to assist others in overcoming the COVID 19, by being educated about the virus and speaking the truth about the dangers, by wearing masks, and assisting those made more vulnerable by this terrible scourge. We must actively reverse systematic, institutional, racism by speaking up in public forums and personal situations, supporting policies and politicians that are devoted to changing the status quo in our society. We must speak up for the rights of those protesting inequality of police enforcement and work toward a more fair and responsible system of law enforcement and justice administration. Black Live Matter. We must be truthful and fair in our speech regarding the contentious state of our culture in a divided America. This requires upaya (skillful means) in order to it effectively. Right Action means – get the vote out to support candidates who represent the values we have been addressing.
If we use Right Speech and Right Actions adroitly, we will be part of a non-violent revolution that addresses social inequalities, abuses and disorders. It is possible. Is it probable? As the Honorable John Lewis wrote, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” It is our struggle as bodhisattvas.
Love and gassho . . . Monshin